Why Older Adults Desperately Need Power Training (And How to Do It Right)

Power training has not only proven to be overwhelmingly safe, but also effective in improving functional capacity in older adults.

When we hear the word "powerful" we tend to think of athletes like NFL running back Derrick Henry or basketball superstar LeBron James, not adults over the age of 65. But maybe but we should.

Although most adults over 65 are not trying to run through 250-pound linebackers or dunk over a 7-foot center, they are trying to accomplish many tasks that require muscular power. These tasks primarily fall into the category of activities of daily living (ADLs) and they consist of normal tasks that allow us to remain living independently such as checking the mail, walking up stairs and sitting and standing from a chair.

Muscular power is work divided by time, or force times velocity. The specifics of calculating power are outside the scope of this article, but essentially it boils down to how quickly someone can exert their muscular strength (this is a very rudimentary explanation). In other words, muscular power is the ability to produce maximum muscular force as fast as possible. This ability is crucial for many athletic movements like performing a Power Clean or broad jump, but also for being able to catch yourself when you trip over a rug in your hallway.

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When we hear the word "powerful" we tend to think of athletes like NFL running back Derrick Henry or basketball superstar LeBron James, not adults over the age of 65. But maybe but we should.

Although most adults over 65 are not trying to run through 250-pound linebackers or dunk over a 7-foot center, they are trying to accomplish many tasks that require muscular power. These tasks primarily fall into the category of activities of daily living (ADLs) and they consist of normal tasks that allow us to remain living independently such as checking the mail, walking up stairs and sitting and standing from a chair.

Muscular power is work divided by time, or force times velocity. The specifics of calculating power are outside the scope of this article, but essentially it boils down to how quickly someone can exert their muscular strength (this is a very rudimentary explanation). In other words, muscular power is the ability to produce maximum muscular force as fast as possible. This ability is crucial for many athletic movements like performing a Power Clean or broad jump, but also for being able to catch yourself when you trip over a rug in your hallway.

A loss of muscular strength and power is part of the natural aging process, even in otherwise healthy individuals. However, that does not mean we should just sit back and let it happen. The NSCA's position stand on resistance training in older adults recommends an individualized and periodized approach to resistance training, eventually working towards 2 to 3 sets of 1 to 2 multi-joint exercises per muscle group at 70-85% one rep maximum (1RM) two to three days per week. They also recommend the inclusion of power exercises performed at higher concentric velocities between 40 and 60% 1RM.

When hypertension is controlled, and older adults have received medical clearance, resistance training has proven to be both effective and safe. In terms of power training and safety, a recent systematic review found that the risk of adverse events during muscular power testing was between .15% and .69% (between 1 in every 658 tests and 1 in every 144 tests). Even lower-limb plyometric training has been shown to be both a safe and effective training option in older adults.

It has been demonstrated that muscular power capacity is perhaps the strongest predictor of functional limitations in older adults. It has also been shown that power training can have greater effects than traditional, slow-movement resistance training on physical function ability in older adults. Unfortunately, muscular power also decreases at a faster rate than other muscular related functions such as strength. So what can we do?

The first step is to check with a physician to ensure that you or your client is healthy enough to engage in resistance or power training. It is also paramount to ensure proper form and technique to reduce the likelihood of injury, which is one reason why it is a good idea to work with a strength training professional.

In terms of actual exercise selection, following the NSCA's recommendations of implementing multi-joint exercises at moderate intensities of 40-60% 1RM is a great place to start, and the efficacy of several different methods such as resistance bands, pneumatic machines and plate-loaded machines have all proven to be both safe effective. Simply decreasing the weight or resistance used and increasing the speed of the concentric movement (in a controlled and safe manner) can turn many of the exercises you already perform into a power exercise. It is difficult to list specific power exercises to perform, as each program should be developed and catered to the individual abilities and needs of each person.

The goal of a power-based exercise program for older adults is to increase quality of life, independence and the ability to perform ADLs safely and independently. The implementation of power training has not only proven to be overwhelmingly safe, but also effective in improving functional capacity in older adults.

This article is for educational purposes only and not designed to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or ailment. Please speak to your physician before engaging in or changing up your exercise routine.

References - Part 1, Part 2

Photo Credit: EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER/iStock

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Topics: WEIGHTLIFTING | POWER TRAINING | HEALTH AND FITNESS